Rio's Carnaval: A Long-Awaited Victory, Record Heat, and a Revived Street Scene

Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval of 2010 was one to remember, with record-breaking temperatures, a claim to hosting the biggest street celebrations in Brazil, a parade victory by a samba school that hadn't won in 74 years, and controversy over a pint-size, under-age drum queen.

Revelers in Rio's Carnaval ("Carnival" in English) kept their spirits high despite wilting heat and humidity. However, the scorching temperatures overcame some costumed participants in the escola de samba ("samba school") parades. The city has endured a blast-furnace summer and hit 41.8° Centigrade (107° F) in downtown's Praça Mauá during Carnaval on Tuesday, Feb. 17. According to Jornal do Brasil's Marcelo Gigliotti, Rio's average maximum temperature during the first 17 days of February was 39° C (102° F), compared to a normal average high for the month of 33.8° C (93° F). The heat, coupled with the area's high humidity, turned the city into a sauna; this followed a January that was nearly as toasty. Brazil is just one of several Southern Hemisphere countries having their steamiest summer in years. The average surface land temperature in the Southern Hemisphere was the warmest on record for January, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Salvador, Bahia and Olinda-Recife in Pernambuco have traditionally laid claim to having the best street celebrations in Brazil, where Carnaval is a festival for the entire country, not just one city or region (as with Mardi Gras, the American equivalent in New Orleans). It officially runs from Feb. 13-16, but related events start before that. Until recently, Carnaval in Rio mostly took place at private balls and at the Sambódromo ("Sambadrome") with the spectacular samba-school parades. There was a small street Carnaval carried on by blocos, groups of musicians and members (sometimes with a sound truck) that parade through the streets, playing sambas and marchas and followed by a crowd of merrymakers. The Banda de Ipanema was one of the blocos that carried on the tradition, which was largely subdued for decades. Then, about ten years ago, Rio's street scene began to gain a new momentum. Old blocos surged in popularity (the oldest, Cordão do Bola Preta dates to 1918), while new groups like Monobloco (formed in 2000 by musician Pedro Luís and friends) appeared and injected fresh energy. Rio's street festivities grew steadily in the last decade and this year an estimated 2.5 million celebrants were in the streets, with the blocos and bandas, according to the city. The Cordão do Bola Preta alone attracted 1.5 million participants and viewers. Rio officially lists 465 Carnaval groups, according to the Jornal do Brasil, although the total number according to other sources is around five hundred. Rio now has both a street celebration that in size rivals that of Salvador and Olinda, plus its own world-famous samba-school parades.

Imagine the water, soft drinks, and beer consumed by 2.5 million people in the streets partying during a record heat wave with stifling humidity, and then think of the pressing need for rest rooms. The city claimed that 4,000 public chemical toilets were in place for Carnaval this year, a four-fold boost over last year. Alas, that pitiful number (one for every 625 partiers) was spread all over the city and seemingly none were being cleaned or emptied. Restaurants were charging $1 to $3 for the use of their bathrooms, which had long lines. As a result, thousands of people relieved themselves wherever they could and the streets stank of urine after a large bloco had passed through. Rio needs ten times that number of portable toilets during Carnaval and they need to be cleaned.

The "yellow tide" did not dissuade foreign celebrities who were in town for Rio's Carnaval, many of whom watched the samba school parades from the large private box of AmBev, the Brazilian beverage giant that owns Brahma beer. Madonna was there with her Brazilian boyfriend Jesus Luz ("Jesus Light") and received a check from AmBev of $1 million for her charity Success for Kids. While there, she partied with state governor Sérgio Cabral, Rio's mayor Eduardo Paes, and presidential candidate Dilma Roussef, who is current president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's pick as his successor.

Gerard Butler, Hugh Jackman, Paris Hilton and rising Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro also attended. Beyonce was in town as the partying was getting underway, during the week leading up to Carnaval's official start. She performed concerts and appeared in a music-video shoot at the Dona Marta and Morro da Conceição favelas (poor hillside communities). Spike Lee shot Michael Jackson's 1996 music video "They Don't Care About Us" at Dona Marta and in Salvador. Beyonce was joined at the Morro da Conceição location by Alicia Keys. Dona Marta has been a model community during the last year for the city's efforts to finally begin policing and upgrading favelas; the Morro da Conceição has some renovated, historic areas. As part of the video for their duet "Put It In a Love Song," Beyonce and Keys don the costumes of samba-school passistas (dancers). After that, Beyonce gave a concert in Salvador on Feb. 10 at the start of that city's Carnaval, which runs longer than in most other Brazilian cities.

This year, the Viradouro samba school chose a seven-year-old girl, Julia Lira as its rainha da bateria ("drum queen"), a role normally filled by sexy models and actresses who dress like showgirls and whose nubile bodies receive heavy photographic attention from the press. Whether or not the controversy hurt Viradouro, it placed last in the competition between the twelve top samba schools, and will be demoted to a lower division.

The winner of the night was Unidos da Tijuca ("Tijuca United"), its first victory since 1936. Tijuca, founded in 1931, is one of the three oldest surviving samba schools in Rio. When it last won, the samba parades were tiny and humble compared to the expensive, complex undertakings of today that can cost $3 to $5 million to produce. With Paulo Barros as its carnavalesco (art director), Tijuca put on an innovative and colorful show illustrating the theme "É Segredo!" ("It's a Secret"); the school explored mysteries around the world and featured rapid-fire costume changes that stunned the Sambódromo audience. There were pop-culture references and floats featured skiing Batmen and climbing Spidermen, as well as a Michael Jackson impersonator. The four-month pregnant TV host Adriane Galisteu was Tijuca's drum queen. The samba schools Grande Rio, Beija-Flor, Vila Isabel, Salgueiro, and Mangueira took the next five positions, respectively. *For more on the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, see my blogs: Rio's 2010 Carnaval Kicks Off Amidst Heat, Optimism and Controversy

**For more on the history of samba, Carnaval and Brazilian music, see my book The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil (Temple University Press):

***The Brazilian Sound blog: The Brazilian Sound at Blogspot